News Topic

Advocacy, Amicus Briefs

At its meeting on January 7, 2007, the Council of the American Historical Association approved the following statement, prepared by the Professional Division. Revised by AHA Council, June 4, 2017.

The American Historical Association (AHA) was chartered by an act of Congress in 1884 “for the promotion of historical studies.” The Constitution of the AHA states that “Its object shall be the promotion of historical studies through the encouragement of research, teaching, and publication; the collection and preservation of historical documents and artifacts; the dissemination of historical records and information; the broadening of historical knowledge among the general public; and the pursuit of kindred activities in the interest of history.” In a wide range of situations, whether involving the rights and careers of individual historians, historical practice in diverse venues, or the role of history in public culture, the AHA has the responsibility to take public stands. Some of the most prominent examples of such situations are the following:

When public or private authorities, in the United States or elsewhere, threaten the preservation of or free access to historical sources. At least since the time of Tacitus, historians have worried that states can and will poison the wells of historical research by suppressing vital documents or supporting the spread of misleading information. As the forms of historical research, scholarship, public presentations, and teaching become more varied, and as the forms of evidence that historians depend on likewise become more varied, especially because of the increasing use of digitization, it seems certain that these concerns will continue to arise, and that the AHA will have to confront an increasing variety of problems in this realm. The AHA should insist that all students and researchers, whether or not they are affiliated with particular institutions, have equal access to sites, documents, films, recordings and other historical materials in the possession of federal, state, and local repositories. In particular, the AHA should stand ready to act if political or commercial concerns threaten the professional administration of an archive, historical society or other institution that has custody of sources.

When public or private authorities, in the United States or elsewhere, censor or seek to prevent the writing, publication, exhibition, teaching, or other practices of history or seek to punish historians, whether through criminal prosecution, defamation suits, dismissal, or other means, for conclusions they have reached and evidence they have unearthed as a result of legitimate historical inquiry. The AHA should defend historians, regardless of institutional affiliations or lack thereof, against efforts to limit their freedom of expression, or to punish them for ideas, grounded in legitimate historical inquiry, they have expressed or material they have uncovered.

When public or private authorities, in the United States or elsewhere, limit or forbid the freedom of movement of historians. The AHA should defend the rights of historians in the United States to travel to all foreign countries in order to study, teach, pursue research, or simply carry on discussions with other historians, and the rights of historians from foreign countries to study, teach, pursue research, or carry on discussions with historians in the United States.

Although the AHA generally focuses on cases involving historians, the Association can, in exceptional situations, support peer organizations in defending the rights of scholars from all disciplines to have access to information, freedom of expression, and freedom to travel inside and outside the United States. From the standpoint of most members, this is probably a secondary area for AHA intervention, but joint and supporting statements by the president, the executive director, and the Council can fall within the scope of this policy.

If individual historians, historical organizations, or other entities have stood forth in defense of the principles listed above, the AHA may issue a statement acknowledging their activities. Such statements may involve signing onto amicus briefs in federal or state courts that defend the work or rights of historians or that bring historical scholarship to bear on issues before those courts. (See the Policies and Procedures for Considering Amicus Brief Requests.)

In all cases, the relevant facts should be established before issuing a public statement. Circumstances that might warrant issuance of such a statement have been, and can be, called to the Council’s attention by individual members or affiliated societies. Consultation with all members of the Council has proved an effective way to gain information rapidly in the past and should continue to be the normal practice.